The virtual passenger

How to make a children’s board game: My latest New York Times Magazine feature

The design of games — the design of play, really — is one of the most ill-understood and philosophically neglected topics in modern society. Most adults know how a movie is made or how a TV show is made, and many know how an album is recorded. But no-one has any idea how a game is created. They just arrive like black boxes in our Playstations or on our living-room tables. Yet the design of play is an incredibly subtle mix of an enormous number of fields, including psychology, philosophy, sociology, graphic design and engineering.

As many smart game designers have told me, one of the best ways to understand the challenges of making a good game is to study board-game design. That’s why I was thrilled to get a chance to write a piece for yesterday’s New York Times Magazine about today’s designers of children’s board games. I mostly focused on Cranium, though I also got a chance to look at Out of Box Games too. You can read the whole story online here, but here’s a taste. In this excerpt, I’m talking about the creation of Balloon Lagoon, one of Cranium’s games for preschoolers:

The designers developed four activities that touched on children’s different intelligences — like the frog flipping, a test of dexterity, or spelling with the letters fished out of the word pond, a linguistic challenge. Each player had 30 seconds to try each activity, to maximize the chance that every child would win — ”shine” — at least once. They set up a sand timer to count down the 30 seconds.

But the timer caused unexpected friction, as Alexander recalls: ”One kid would take on the self-appointed task of being the sand-time watcher. And they’d be sitting there tapping the timer and going: ‘Time’s almost up! Time’s almost up!’ The trash-talking would start as soon as the timer went on.” He watched kids sassing one another in a play-test one day and came out shaking his head. ”I said to the team, ‘Well, we’ve done a great job of making the Your Time Is Almost Up game.”’

Then a designer had a breakthrough idea. If the timekeeping was the problem, he reasoned, then they had to ”hide the time” — by making the timekeeping invisible. They got rid of the sand timer and replaced it with a music box that plays a tune for 30 seconds, like musical chairs. Each child would play until the song ends and then stop. It was a neat bit of social engineering: with no clock to watch, the kids shifted allegiance and began rooting for each player as he or she vied to complete the task in 30 seconds. ”It transformed it from this schoolmarmish situation to one where they’re all cheering each other on,” Alexander says, ”and high-fiving.”

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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